As Denver Public Schools embraced school choice, test scores improved, study finds

Ever since Denver Public Schools decided to embrace school choice in 2007, a debate has raged over whether those reforms helped or hurt the district.

A new study by the University of Colorado Denver’s Center for Education Policy Analysis that attempts to answer that question found that, during the 11-year period it dubs the reform years, DPS saw its high school graduation rate increase, academic performance improve among students, and enrollment increase by more than 17,000 students.

“This study makes clear that the reforms helped students and strengthened the district,” said Parker Baxter, director of the center and an author of the study, which was released Tuesday. (Baxter worked as director of charter schools for DPS during part of the period studied.)

DPS officials said they were “unfamiliar with this study” and not able to comment on it.

The Denver district’s reforms included simplifying the process through which students apply to other schools in DPS,  as well as instituting annual evaluations of school performance, closing low-performing schools, and replacing or creating new schools, according to the study.

Districts in other major U.S. cities, such as Chicago, New York City and New Orleans, also undertook similar reforms, but in Denver, the strategy was “the most comprehensive and most long-lasting,” according to the study.

“These findings are important because systemwide improvement in student outcomes of this size and duration is rare under any conditions, and especially so in large school systems with high levels of student needs,” the study states.

In Colorado, most charter schools are part of a local school district. That means all students in Denver charter schools are enrolled in DPS. But that’s not the case in other states, such as Texas, where charter schools exist outside of districts, Baxter said.

“People don’t necessarily know that charter schools in Denver are very different from many… other cities where charter schools exist,” he said.

Denver families already were choosing which schools to send their children to before the district launched its strategy in 2007. But, Baxter said, DPS was at a crossroads and needed to decide: should the district view school choice as a threat, or should it embrace it as an opportunity to grow?

In 2007, DPS was the second-largest school district in Colorado. And in the first year of reform, all student groups other than white students performed below the state average on English Language Arts and math standardized tests, according to the study.

“Denver’s reforms were built around the idea that the school board’s purpose is to ensure education to all students in the district,” Baxter said. “That responsibility doesn’t require a single way of doing that.”

Since 2007, 65 new schools have opened in Denver and more than 30 others have been restarted or replaced. More than half of the schools in Denver are either charter schools or semi-autonomous innovation schools, according to the study.

As DPS grew, it opened new schools that were “almost always schools of choice” rather than neighborhood schools, Baxter said.

But the school board underwent a “historic” flip in 2019 as candidates backed by pro-reform organizations lost control of the board.

By the 2018-19 school year, the last year examined in the study, overall academic performance at DPS exceeded the state average in both English Language Arts and math. Before 2007, DPS ranked among the bottom 10 districts in the state when it came to English Language Arts and math test scores. By 2018-19, the district was outperforming more than 100 of the roughly 180 districts in the state, according to the study.

High school graduation rates also rose from 43% in 2008 to 71% in 2019. The graduation rate would have remained below 60% without reforms, the study found.

It makes sense that test scores improved because there was a lot of emphasis on standardized tests at the time, said Scott Baldermann, a director on the district’s Board of Education.

“It doesn’t surprise me,” he said.

But Baldermann questioned whether high test scores are the only measure of success. “Or do we want to graduate students that are very well-rounded and ready for college and careers?”

Enrollment also grew during the district’s reform years. More than 74,100 students enrolled in DPS schools during the 2008-09 academic year, but by 2018-19, that number had increased to almost 92,000 children, according to the study.

DPS is now the largest school district in the state.

The fact that DPS saw enrollment grow during the years examined by the study is surprising because, in 2007, the concern was that children were leaving Denver, Baxter said.

However, in recent years, enrollment in the district has started to decline because of declining birth rates and housing costs that are pushing families from the city, according to DPS officials. And the district considered shutting down as many as 10 schools last month before the school board voted against the plan.

“Reform — because it’s a market-driven concept — when enrollment is increasing, it works differently than when we see declining enrollment,” Baldermann said.

Fewer kindergarteners are enrolling in the district since 2014 and eight charter schools have closed in the past three years, he noted.

“Now, we have under-enrolled schools that are now becoming under-resourced,” Baldermann said. “That’s also going to have an impact on student performance.”

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